By Andrew Villegas
If MLS is to become a global brand, then this week’s announcement that Stan Kroenke will take a controlling stake in Arsenal must have many mouths at MLS headquarters agape in anticipation.
Kroenke – that Missouri businessman and part heir to the Wal-Mart family fortune – has a reputation, one that almost always precedes him because no one can get the man on the record. He is notoriously cloistered from media attention. And in a system like MLS, the fewer “owner-operators” talking – each chance, if an owner does speak, is a chance for media to latch on to any whiff of a rift between owners and the league – the better.
So, in a way, Kroenke is a really perfect fit as new majority owner for Arsenal. Since buying a slice of the St. Louis Rams in the 1990s as well as several Denver sports franchises, Kroenke has shown he’s willing to take chances, spend money (just how much is a matter of differing and far-ranging opinion) and leave the tough sports decisions to those who run the show day-to-day. They don’t call him “Silent Stan” for nothing; Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger must be dancing on his bed in his wingtips.
In addition to taking the Rams to a Super Bowl, in Denver (where your loyal columnist is from) he brought the Nuggets to the brink of the NBA Finals. And before the salary cap was instituted in the NHL, Kroenke’s Colorado Avalanche was a perennial power. He also oversaw the financing and construction of a soccer-specific stadium and grounds near northeast Denver for his MLS side, the Rapids, before the Rapids won last year’s MLS cup.
Now, some view the construction of Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colo. – notably not in Denver proper – as a negative. Kroenke’s other Denver franchises play in Downtown Denver at Kroenke’s own Pepsi Center. But Kroenke’s vision of a one-stop shop for soccer in the Denver metro area is a huge investment in a sport that still has yet to really pay off in the Rocky Mountain West. The complex has 22 full-size, natural grass pitches and two turf fields, they are all lit. But the investment has yet to really pay off: Rapids games are located seven miles through the thickest of traffic that Denver has to offer and attendance shows promise, but has remained relatively stagnant since the Rapids moved to their new home. But there’s hope that as the sprawl of Denver’s suburbs catches up (as does the interest in the sport from a younger population there), that the “Field of Dreams” scenario will manifest.
And really, you won’t hear many Rapids fans say they think the team is mismanaged (Take it easy on me, fellas, I know who you are). Rapids Manager Gary Smith is a former Arsenal man, and the Rapids have thrived under him. It’s the type of partnership – which can be likened to the loosest of farm systems – that Kroenke’s newfound Arsenal majority will look to enhance. Also, that opportunity can only get bigger under Kroenke’s ownership – MLS players like Paulinho, Steve Zakuani and Rohan Ricketts started in the Arsenal system. Have a coach that’s not quite ready for prime time? “Send him to the MLS for a few years to cut his teeth.” How about a player? “Well, he can go train in America with the Rapids.” It has its pitfalls: MLS doesn’t want to get painted as the “A” ball to the Premier League’s major leagues, but for a young league, it can’t hurt to play sidekick for a while.
The construction of Dick’s Sporting Goods Park was a significant investment from Kroenke – an estimated “budgeted” $131 million. It’s not close to the $1.2 billion he’ll spend on Arsenal, but it’s a bigger gamble. Arsenal’s fan base, world-class stadium and talent are in place. The Rapids’ is a work in progress. Kroenke would likely be happy if the Rapids turned into the John Rooney to Manchester United’s Wayne.
So what’s it mean for MLS? If Kroenke’s investment in Arsenal pays big dividends for his holding company, Arsenal Holdings, then it’s not outside the realm of possibility that Kroenke is likely to be more willing to take a chance on seeing the success of the Rapids, and indeed of all of MLS, through. Owners in MLS have a stake in the success of the entire league, not just in their teams, so it’s not outside Kroenke’s purview to ensure the financial stability of the league through increasing his investment if he has the means. And if that increased investment is financed directly or indirectly through the success of Arsenal, MLS Commissioner Don Garber should send a case of 1921 vintage Dom Perignon to Kroenke with a note that says, “Great buy! Let’s talk!”
But it could go the other way too. Money made on Arsenal could mean Kroenke focuses less on his MLS holdings in favor of greener pastures (no pun intended) in Europe. Then not only will MLS be a farm system for players with European aspirations it will be a farm system for owners with European aspirations as well.
Andrew Villegas writes a weekly column about Major League Soccer for The Yanks Are Coming. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and you should follow him on Twitter at @ReporterAndrew.